Northern Lights Photography Guides

I have composed several articles on travel in Alaska and have mentioned the Northern Lights a few times, but one thing I have not written about is tips on photographing it.

Photographing the Northern Lights is the ultimate dream for numerous landscape photographers. However, not everyone is lucky enough to witness this magical display; even a voyage to the great white north does not guarantee this fantastic show. So here I offer you tips on how to chase the Aurora, as well as general photography guidelines.

Best places to witness the Aurora Borealis 

aurora-3

The Northern Lights are usually visible overhead in the Arctic Circle and its vicinity. Around the world, the hotspots for the Aurora are:

  • Northern Scandinavia
  • Greenland
  • Alaska
  • Iceland
  • Northern Canada

Among these, Fairbanks, Alaska and Churchill, Manitoba (Canada) are Aurora destinations of choice. On average, the Aurora appears Fairbanks on over 245 days annually, and at Churchill on 300 days.

The best time to witness the Aurora is during the fall and the winter (late August to March). The best weather condition in which to view the Aurora is under a clear and dark sky.

Get away from the city center as street lights are a distraction. Riverbanks, mountain hills, and farmland are the best places to wait for the lights to show up. There are times when the Aurora is too faint to be seen. If you feel something mysterious over the sky, take a picture toward the north first to double-check. If there is any trace of the Aurora, your photos will often exhibit green, red, or blue lights, or vertical rays.

Photo Equipment

Aurora Borealis on Dalton Highway, Alaska

Camera body: It does not matter which camera you are using, as long as it is capable of adjusting shutter speed, aperture and ISO manually. Currently, I use a Canon Rebel-T3 DSLR camera for Northern Lights photography. A camera with all-automatic setting may not work well in this case.

Lens: since the Aurora usually covers enormous areas of the sky, a wide-angle lens is necessary for shooting. The ideal f/ratio (aperture) is 2.8 and lower. Aperture higher than f2.8 may require longer shutter speed and higher ISO to compensate, and increase your ISO results in grainy photos. A fisheye lens helps you to fit as much of the Aurora and sky in as possible, and allows you to get more creative compositions. I do not recommend fisheye lens to everyone, for budget reasons. However, if you are able to afford one, it is worth trying.

Tripod: this is not the time to skimp on a high- quality tripod. Considering you need to take an exposure of many seconds, the camera has to be mounted on a sturdy tripod. As Aurora pictures may need to be taken in the dead of winter, your tripod should be fairly windproof and weather -resistant. A high-quality tripod is expensive, but will be more reliable than a flimsy one.

Cable release/Remote control: as the exposure goes from 15 seconds to 30 seconds, a cable release or automatic timer is recommended to minimize the movement of your camera.

Batteries: always keep a spare battery warm inside your pocket. Long exposure and freezing weather may decrease the longevity of your batteries faster than you can possibly imagine.

Filters: please – do not use them. They sort out the strongest light (green line) and bring concentric circles to the center of your image.

DSLR Camera Settings: ISO+ Shutter Speed + Aperture (f/ratio)

  • Use manual setting and focus your camera to infinity by rotating the focus ring either to the right end or the left end.
  • Try ISO speed of 800, shutter speed of 15 seconds, and aperture 2.8, or start the ISO with 400, shutter speed 15 and f/ratio to 2. Experiment with the aperture, shuttle speed, and ISO to figure out what combination works out best for you and your camera. However, do not let the ISO go over 800. Keep your exposures under 30 seconds. ISO over 800 creates noise for your images and shutter speed over 30 seconds results in a lack of details on the Aurora.
  • Keep the white balance on AUTO.

Composition

aurora-4

Scout the location and look for something interesting in the foreground. A house, trees, road, and showground would add a sense of perspective to your image. A lake or river is usually a perfect photography spot as it will allow you to take images of Aurora Borealis with the reflection off the water. On a clear night, you can even capture the Milky Way running down the horizon.

A few more things you need to know

Aurora Borealis

Stay warm. Not only keep yourself warm, but also try to insulate your photography gear to prevent it from frosting. Keep your camera lens cap on, or point it down when not shooting.

Check the weather and Aurora Forecast – I have wasted a great deal of time and energy during dreadful winter nights because I did not check the weather and the level of Aurora display in advance.

Get familiar with your camera – get to know your camera settings in advance and make sure you have tried some shots before the appearance of Aurora. If, for some reason, your camera is not working or has been forgotten, just stand back and enjoy watching the Northern Lights. This will also be a memorable experience.

Be patient – photographing Aurora means sleep deprivation and probably frostbite. Putting your head down early can make you miss out on a lucky sighting. Either sleeps through, or stays up and waits to observe the greatest explosion of the sky. Remember, excellent Aurora images require commitment, a great amount of research, and patient waiting. I still remember driving 68 miles away from the city, sitting out at minus -30 degrees and waiting till 12:30am for Aurora to show up on Christmas holiday seven years ago. However, none of that mattered once I saw this:

Aurora Borealis

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Northern Lights Photography Guides

 

 

 

 

 

Julie Cao

Julie Cao is a travel blogger, travel writer, and global citizen currently living in Toronto Ontario.

19 thoughts on “Northern Lights Photography Guides

  • November 15, 2016 at 11:00 pm
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    Thanks for the info, Julie! Stunning pictures. I’m not very skilled at photography and my camera doesn’t quite capture Aurora Borealis (as far as known), but I will certainly try these tips next time I get a chance – I hope to catch some Northern lights in Russia this winter!

    Reply
    • November 22, 2016 at 4:48 pm
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      Thanks Anna! Watching Northern lights in Russia sounds great! Enjoy your trip.

      Reply
  • November 16, 2016 at 4:08 am
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    These are some amazing tips! I have always wondered the best way to capture the stars as perfectly as this. I have also been fascinated by the beauty of the northern lights! Thank you!

    Reply
    • November 22, 2016 at 4:49 pm
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      No problem! Northern lights is really beautiful and I am glad you enjoyed reading this.

      Reply
  • November 16, 2016 at 5:12 am
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    Wow those photos are amazing. I went to iceland two years ago hoping to see the Northern lights but didn’t get to see it. I hope I can see it one day!

    Reply
    • November 22, 2016 at 4:51 pm
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      I did not see it at my first time in Fairbanks too, I believe it also depends on the weather and the time. Aurora is unreal, and I wish you could see it one day too!

      Reply
  • November 16, 2016 at 8:23 am
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    These lights are absolutely breathtaking. What I would give to see them in person!

    Reply
    • November 22, 2016 at 4:55 pm
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      See it in person is really an experience you will never forget. Wish you will see it one day!

      Reply
  • November 16, 2016 at 3:56 pm
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    omg I love this. I love taking photos and I love playing with the camera but for the life of me, I never understand Camera-jargon. Thank you

    Reply
  • November 18, 2016 at 12:01 am
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    Great guide! These photos are stunning. I would love to see the Northern Lights from Northern Scandinavia, but I would want to have all the right equipment and techniques beforehand to make the most of the lighting show, so thanks for this guide! I find with photography there is ALWAYS more money to be spent on something…

    Reply
    • November 22, 2016 at 4:57 pm
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      Hi Juliette, I cannot count how many $$ I have spent on photography gears, and have to carry huge camera body, lens and tripod everywhere, but it all worth it when it could help me to capture the explosion of the sky. Northern Scandinavia is a great place to travel and see the northern lights, and I love to venture out there one day also!

      Reply
  • November 18, 2016 at 11:19 am
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    This is absolutely breathtaking, and nothing like anything else.. I do hope to visit them some time…

    Reply
    • November 22, 2016 at 4:57 pm
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      It is truly an amazing sites to see. I hope to see them again.

      Reply
  • November 20, 2016 at 1:39 pm
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    I am so excited about being able to witness Northern Lights myself one day. Thanks for sharing such great tips and having excited me to ends for booking a ticket soon!

    Reply
    • November 22, 2016 at 4:59 pm
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      Thanks Harsh! I believe you will get more excited when you see them!

      Reply
    • December 5, 2016 at 7:13 pm
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      Hope you will see it one day! It is a surreal sight!

      Reply
  • November 30, 2016 at 8:24 pm
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    Wow, this is very cool! Do you also have tips on how to take a perfect photo of the moon? I always wondered how to set up my camera so that I can capture a super moon or something like that.

    Reply
    • December 5, 2016 at 7:14 pm
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      Hi Lisa, I have hardly taken pictures of the moon. I need to look into it before the super moon is coming haha

      Reply

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